Monday, June 4, 2012

Love Among The Elements: Ask The Dust

The Good: Interesting characters, Good acting
The Bad: Basic story, Minor pacing issues
The Basics: With decent acting and characters who at the least are interesting, Ask The Dust makes for a satisfying romantic drama.

One of my most common problems with films I watch has to do with pacing. Historically, in my reviews, that has meant that the movie does not move in an organic way, usually meaning it is too fast in some parts, too slow in others, without a level feeling to the story. In recent reviews, I've managed to make "pacing" and issue of a film simply being too slow. Ask The Dust returns to my traditional definition of pacing problems, as it - ironically - moves too fast, too soon, before becoming somewhat ponderous in the latter half.

Arturo Bandini, Colorado native and now a writer struggling through the poverty of living as an artist in California during the Depression, is living in a hotel, desperately trying to write the great American novel. Convinced that his life would be better in love with a blue-eyed blonde American woman, Arturo wastes away the days in Los Angeles until he is alone and down to his last nickel. Splurging the nickel on a cup of coffee, Arturo turns the experience of getting lousy coffee into a chance to degrade and humiliate a waitress named Camilla.

Camilla and Arturo have a series of fiery exchanges based on him being a jerk and her, well, putting up with it and punching back. When Arturo becomes convinced Camilla is involved with the bartender, Sammy, he allows himself to pursue another option, in the form of the somewhat crazy stalker Vera. When Vera leaves the picture, Arturo and Camilla find themselves moving toward one another again and their story becomes less adversarial and more loving.

The pacing problem in Ask The Dust is simple; when Arturo and Camilla first meet, Arturo is outright cruel, for no reason apparent other than implied racism over Camilla's Mexican heritage. Now Arturo's actions are those of a genuine jerk and probably a bigot. He returns to his hotel and feels bad and sends Camilla a copy of one of his published short stories. Camilla - illiterate as she is - cannot read it and ultimately destroys it. The extremity of their reactions to one another makes the speed at which they have anything to do with one another - much less exploring a romance - problematic.

Arturo's relationship with Vera seems designed to alleviate this very real narrative and character problem. Unfortunately, because of the time away and the uncertainty of the growth, there is little to recommend the relationship between Camilla and Arturo when he returns, save that he has some money. So, Camilla and Arturo develop a relationship and it works. But then, nothing much happens as they relate and the movie slows down a bit. In short, there's an uneven sense to the telling of the story, as opposed to the action of it.

But the pacing is the only serious problem here. Camilla and Arturo, once they get beyond being mean to one another, work well together. They have decent chemistry and the movie works as their story. This is in no small part to the character work. Arturo's journey from scumbag to human being is revealing and interesting, though somewhat baffling in its origins. That is to say, the revelations he makes at the climax of the movie seem like they should have been more readily available to him from the outset. In short, we can buy his journey from jerk to love of man and beast alike, but we're somewhat stymied as to why he's a jerk in the beginning at all.

Director (and screenwriter) Robert Towne does a wonderful job with the direction. This is a very easy movie to watch in that the scenery and camera work is quite beautiful. So are the people. Everything looks Hollywood good in Ask The Dust.

At the top of that list, of course, are the leads: Collin Farrell and Salma Hayek, though both earn their paychecks based on acting talent as opposed to the perceptions of their appearances. Farrell impressed me in Daredevil (reviewed here!) for his psychotic, crazy-eyed interpretation of Bullseye. To his credit, when Arturo is mean in Ask The Dust, there is not even a hint of that prior performance from Farrell. He creates a distinctly layered character in Arturo by playing more subtle with his expressions and mannerisms. By the middle of the movie, he's even evoking human sympathy for his character!

Salma Hayek, who attracted my notice in Dogma (reviewed here!) and blew me away with her talent in Frida (reviewed here!), once again rules the screen in Ask The Dust. Hayek has a way of infusing characters who have a social statement to make with an amazing sense of character that makes them come across as more than just posterchildren for a cause. So, for example, here Hayek's Camilla makes several sweeping statements on the importance of not judging her as a Mexican, but we never feel like this is just a generic "don't be bigoted" social message statement. Camilla, through Hayek's performance, illustrates the message by creating a truly vivid and vulnerable character who tries to hide her pains and ultimately proves her points through subtle interactions with others outside her relationship. Hayek owns the screen in every scene she's in. It's a pleasure to watch her in Ask The Dust.

Ultimately, Ask The Dust works well for anyone who wants a decent, straightforward romantic drama. And watching the Dustbowl-influenced Southern California is certainly easier and more fun than the reality of it.

For other romantic dramas, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Henry And June
Jersey Girl


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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